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Community members in the Santa Maria Valley strawberry industry gathered Wednesday night to celebrate the companies and people that work to grow, package and sell the little red berries, which are the single largest cash crop in Santa Barbara County.

Organized by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner attracted around 680 people for the event, which is in its 28th year. The dinner was held at the Santa Maria Fairpark and sponsors included Driscoll’s Strawberry Association, RDO Water and Cal-Coast Machinery, among other companies and organizations.

In Santa Barbara County in 2016 — the latest year for which there is data — strawberries generated around $414, more than twice the amount of wine grapes, the next largest cash crop.

U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal presented the Industry Partner of the Year Award to the Cachuma Resource Conservation District, which works with local and federal agencies to help local growers conserve water and promote environmentally sustainable farming practices.

“The Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner serves as an opportunity to celebrate organizations that are going above and beyond for their workers,” Carbajal said.

“I’m supposed to hand an award to you, but I’m also going to give you a certificate from the United States Congress recognizing you and the conservation district for all the work you do,” Carbajal said to the district's executive director, Anna Olsen.

In 2015, the conservation district — which covers all of Santa Barbara County, the Channel Islands, along with part of San Luis Obispo and Kern counties — collaborated with several other resource conservation districts, local strawberry growers and several other agencies to release a strawberry production manual, intended to assist Central Coast growers with managing strawberry production. 

Olsen said the district works to help strawberry growers reduce fertilizer and water costs, make their irrigation more efficient and deal with pests.

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“We do a lot of targeted outreach to the strawberry community,” she said.

Wednesday night’s event highlighted the community development work done in the industry, like the raising of funds for the California Strawberry Commission scholarship program.

The program — which provides scholarships to the children of strawberry fieldworkers — has awarded more than $2.3 million to more than 1,000 students since 1996, said Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission. The commission is a regular sponsor of the dinner.

Nancy Sanchez, a social worker for Santa Barbara County, spoke about how the commission's scholarship made her goal of higher education possible as a first-generation student.

“My parents were very hesitant to allow me to go college because they didn’t know how I would be able to afford it,” Sanchez said. “It was through the Strawberry Commission scholarship where I was able to go to California State University, Fresno.”

Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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